First of all, what is a panic attack? It’s an overwhelming feeling of anxiety that comes out of nowhere, with no warning, and quite often for no reason. It feels like a wave taking over your body and can cause some or all of the symptoms we will talk about in a minute. It can be very frightening and unpleasant and can cause some pretty scary effects to your body, even feeling like you are going to die or suffocate! So what are some of the symptoms of a panic attack?
Your heart pounding faster
Feeling unable to breathe or even choking
Feeling faint or dizzy
Pins and needles
None of these are pleasant to experience and can be very frightening which in turn can make you feel more anxious and worried that it will happen again. After a panic attack, you may try avoiding putting yourself in the same situation again. For instance, if you were in a crowded place when the attack happened you may avoid crowds or even mix with people. An attack can usually last from 5 minutes to an hour. So now let’s look at what we can do to help.
1. Try and stay where you are as I said an attack can last up to an hour. If you are in a car, pull over when it’s safe to do so. Try and pause for a moment, and tell yourself you are reacting to a thought, it will pass, what you are feeling is perfectly natural, it’s your body’s alarm system and you need to switch it off.
2. Learn to control your breathing. People can often hyperventilate during a panic attack, which means they take deeper breathes than normal and as a result, feel short of breath. This in turn could give you chest pains, dizziness or make you feel disoriented. By learning to control your breath you can learn to slow it down and this can help to stop some of the physical symptoms of panic attacks and help you to control them.
3. When you get anxious or nervous it could be helpful to teach yourself a word or phrase which you could repeat to yourself and help the calming process.
“I need to breathe”
“This will pass”
Anything that gets you to focus on slowing you're breathing and calming your mind. Be positive and kind with yourself.
4. A panic attack can be caused by negative thoughts or reliving a traumatic event in your life. Rather than focusing on these negative things, focus on something positive, even if it’s looking at a flower or watching your children play, anything that brings calm and comfort to you. Alternatively, think of something positive and try to visualise a place or event that made you happy, that brought some joy. You are trying to distract your mind from sprialing into panic and causing you to have an attack.
5. Challenge your thoughts. What we think is not always reality. For example, you may have pains in your chest, but it doesn’t mean you are having a heart attack. Sometimes the thoughts we have to start small and grow into something that feels desperate or uncontrollable and therefore lead to panic. Become aware of your “triggers”. It’s important to remember they are just thoughts and not necessarily facts. Maybe keep a diary of when your panic attacks happen and then try and work out what caused them and see if there is a pattern or train of thought that lead to the attacks.
Above be kind to yourself! You are human! Panic attacks happen because of a thought, an event, or situation that is very real and distressing to you and nobody has the right to tell you this is wrong. If you feel you can’t overcome the attacks on your own I’m here to help. We can look at your ‘triggers” and deal with them together. I don’t judge and have been through many traumatic experiences myself so understand what you are feeling.
Jimi D Katsis is a Bristol based consultant psychotherapist at jimikatsis.com specialising in recovery from trauma, depression, and anxiety